Many of us use a variety of terms and phrases each day without giving thought to their origins. It can come as quite a shock to learn that some of these are rooted in racism!
Consider the term “gyp” or “gypped,” for instance. I heard this term on occasion when I was growing up. It is widely used as a way to say “cheated.” I used it myself on several occasions, having no idea that the term is a shortened version of the word “gypsy”. Gypsies, a term used to refer to Eastern European Romanies, have been stereotyped through history as being cheats and swindlers. As you can see, this term is a slur.
This is just one example. There are many other commonly used terms and phrases that imply offensive things and are disrespectful. Let’s look at a few more of these and then consider how we should respond.
Idioms and phrases with racist histories
Current meaning: Hecklers
Origin: White theater attendees once used the term to describe the upper balconies where Blacks were allowed to sit in segregated theaters. These balconies were also referred to as “n-word galleries.”
Chinese fire drill
Current meaning: Disorder/confusion or a prank in which motor vehicle passengers stopped at an intersection get out of the vehicle, run around it, and return to their seats
Origin: Some allege the term originated after a Chinese crew practiced a chaotic fire drill on a ship run by British officers. However, most historians trace the use of “Chinese” to denote confusion to the early contacts between the Europeans and Chinese in the 1600s. The Europeans were unable to understand China’s radically different language and culture, so “Chinese” became a synonym of sorts for chaos or confusion (see Chinese whispers, Chinese puzzle, Chinese home run, and Chinese ace).
Current meaning: A person who gives a gift and later wants it back
Origin: Historians say the term is based on cultural misunderstandings that occurred between White explorers who were exploring the land that is now the western portion of the U.S. and the Indigenous residents with whom they traded. The Europeans viewed an exchange of items as gifting, but the Indigenous residents saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange.
Sold down the river
Current meaning: To betray or cheat
Origin: Prior to the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., slave masters would sell their “misbehaving” slaves to plantations down the Mississippi river where conditions were much harsher.
Current meaning: Police car or van
Origin: Since the late 1700s, “Paddy” has been used as a shortened form of “Patrick” (a common Irish name). Later, it became a pejorative term for any Irishman. “Wagon” refers to a vehicle. According to historians, the combination of the two into the term “Paddy wagon” stemmed from the large number of Irish police officers in the U.S. or from the perception that rowdy, drunken Irishmen constantly ended up in the back of police vehicles.
Off the reservation
Current meaning: To deviate from what is customary or to behave in an unexpected manner
Origin: The term originated in the late 1800s when Indigenous individuals were confined to reservations by the U.S. government. Reservation residents could be charged with offenses and punished if they went off reservation land, even if they were doing so in order to conduct ceremonies, dance, pray, or visit sacred places.
How we should respond
You may be surprised at the origins of some of these. You may have even used some of them without knowledge of their connotations! In fact, so many people are unaware of the origins of these terms and phrases that they don’t seem to carry the same weight—their modern uses don’t reflect their racist histories.
What should we do about these terms and phrases? Is it okay to overlook their histories because they don’t carry the same implications today? Should we avoid them and chastise those who use them? Those of us who are Christians find guidance in the Bible.
Scripture instructs us to acquire knowledge (Proverbs 4:5-6 and Proverbs 18:15). Knowledge helps us form foundations for acting wisely. Therefore, it’s good for us to research the meanings of terms and phrases before we use them. If we learn that they have racist connotations, then I believe we should avoid using them, even if their modern uses seem unrelated to their histories. Why is this? Because we are supposed to act in love (Matthew 22:39, John 13:34, Philippians 2:3-4, and 1 John 4:19-21). I know it would be easy to continue using them, and to feel okay about this because they aren’t used today as they once were, but the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. If a term denigrates or stereotypes a racial or ethnic group, then I want to avoid using it because this is the loving thing to do.
Another aspect of loving involves having grace for others. Regardless of your race or ethnicity, at some point in your life you will hear someone use a slur or phrase that disparages you (this includes Caucasian individuals). When this happens, acting in love means being kind and loving towards the individual using the language (Matthew 5:43-48).
As family members, friends, church members, and community members, we have opportunities to help others understand the significance of these terms and phrases. It’s obvious how we can do this with our children and spouses, but it’s a little trickier when it comes to other loved ones, friends, and neighbors. Most of us wouldn’t respond well to a stranger or even an acquaintance telling us that we’re using phrases that are rooted in racism. Thus, it might be best to save direct approaches to relationships where open, candid conversations are the norm. To reach a wider range of people, we can share what we’ve learned without pointing out their use of these terms. In other words, we don’t have to wait until people use offensive terms or phrases to explain why they might want to avoid them. Instead, we can be “lights on a hill” (Matthew 5:14-16) by telling others about our new insights. We can do this in person or by sharing posts like this (or the articles I’ve listed below) on social media. Hopefully we’ll hear these terms and phrases less as awareness spreads!
I’ve only listed a handful of terms and phrases above. If you’d like to learn about additional ones, you can do so by visiting the sources I used for this post:
- Code Switch: Word Watch
- 11 Racist and Offensive Phrases that People Still Use All the Time
- Common Words with Nasty Pasts
- These Words You Use Every Day Have Racist/Prejudiced Pasts, And You Had No Idea
- 6 Words And Phrases You Didn’t Know Were Rooted In Racism
Did you know that these terms and phrases have racist connotations? How do you respond when others use them?